I discovered Paul Farley’s poetry in the Graywolf anthology New British Poetry (2004), edited by Don Paterson and Charles Simic, and immediately fell in love with his work, the seamless integration of natural speech rhythms and hauntingly spare imagery. The anthology influenced me so greatly I wound up attending graduate school in the UK, where I worked with his fellow Liverpudlian Jamie McKendrick, who frequently spoke his praises. I was happy to see The Atlantic Tunnel (Faber & Faber, $25), a selected poems, published my side of the Atlantic, in what I hope will be the first of many contemporary British selecteds to appear in America.
Farley and I corresponded by email, following his New York City reading with Paul Muldoon. His brief emails were characterized by the same intelligence and grace as his poetry.
Your first book in America just came out. Congratulations. It’s called The Atlantic Tunnel, which is interesting to me because of the great disconnect I often feel between American and British poetry. Tell me your take on the situation.
Thank you, David. We’re getting straight into it here, aren’t we? My take on this would be hopelessly one-sided. Even though I’ve never felt any impedimenta to getting hold of American poetry, the recent and emergent stuff is slightly more difficult to track from this side of the ocean, simply because there’s so much of it. But I had For the Union Dead in my pocket when I was at art school in the nineteen-eighties, and I certainly connected with that: it lit me up. I even called one of my paintings ‘Myopia: a Night’. There’s a connection between Melville and Hawthorne with Liverpool, my hometown, so I’ve this longstanding sense of a link. I grew up in a port. I’m useless at discerning schools and movements, even here in the UK, and compared to here America looks like a sea of poets. I attended Michael Donaghy’s poetry class in London in the early nineteen-nineties, and Michael was Irish American, from New York via Chicago, and so a very important conduit. He’d left the States because (among other reasons) he felt the UK still had an engaged and curious general audience for poetry, something that had become largely institutionalized but decoupled from the broader artistic and intellectual currents in America. I’ve not had the opportunity to truly test this, although one difference that does strike me is the availability of the past here, the way poets draw on the big archive; I don’t know whether that happens so routinely in the States.
It’s interesting to me to see the Americans published in the UK, like Carcanet’s Mark Doty and Jorie Graham, Bloodaxe’s Tony Hoagland and C.K. Williams, and so on. It’s the same this side of the Atlantic, and I’m happy to see Faber Poetry publishing poets like you and Don Paterson here. Tell me, in your opinion, which British poets we need in America.
I guess I’m getting more interested in how English translates into English as it crosses the Atlantic, what nuances in the language or cultural frames of reference are distorted or injured in the process, or amplified. On my most recent trip to the States, I gave a reading in New York with Paul Muldoon, and I found myself explaining what treacle was to the audience; this was just a day after I’d interviewed John Ashbery and at one point we’d talked about how difficult or exotic Dickens or O’Hara might seem in the crossing either way, and how savvy readers are. So, I wonder what happens to all the different versions of, say, England or Wales, and would be interested to see how Kate Clanchy or Hugo Williams or Menna Elfyn would go down. Not quite the same thing as you needing them, I know. But I’ve enjoyed finding California in Robert Hass, or Carbondale in Rodney Jones, or Chicago’s South Side in Gwendolyn Brooks.
Conversely, are there any American poets you need in the UK? Kevin Young is one, I think, to scratch at the exotic sheen of Nagra. And Bob Hicok, definitely.
What tends to happen is, American poets come through and create stirs and eddies and poets here talk about them and pass on their books; you can watch it happen, track them coming through, it’s like bands when you’re very young; you can see them gather momentum, before it’s someone else’s turn. You do often wonder what you might be missing. Because poetry is still ‘a tiny jungle’, as Auden put it, everyone eventually knows everyone in the UK, but Americans can remain distant, rumoured. Who is Chelsey Minnis? I liked Bad Bad a lot even though it’s nothing like what I do; and quite a few of us did, maybe all the more so because we’ve little else to go on but the words, the shape of the book, etc. But that also happens with poets who’ve been around for a long time, like Frederick Seidel, that sense of rediscovery that has surrounded his work here recently.
You’re working on another radio drama for the BBC, this one about Frank O’Hara. Tell me about that project and about other projects you’ve worked on for radio—I think you did a program on Larkin, too, right?
This one’s a feature on O’Hara, using Lunch Poems as its centre. I like making programmes where I get to exercise my own interests, but where there’s room to discover things. I think that’s the thing that comes across in a broadcast, your own sense of excitement and discovery. Auden wrote a feature for American Vogue – imagine this happening now – in 1954, called ‘England: Six Unexpected Days’, where he suggests a kind of alternative itinerary for adventurous Americans newly arrived into Heathrow: martinis in Uttoxeter, Crewe Junction, Swaledale and right up onto the North Pennine limestone, his ‘significant earth.’ So we followed the same route and made a feature of that. The Larkin programme was more conventionally timetabled, following his rail routes, the train journeys that got into his poems. I suppose in this O’Hara programme I’ve been trying to talk about how much the fabric and speed and shape of the city is embodied in the poetry, especially the ‘I do this, I do that’ variety; O’Hara as a kind of human junction box through which all kinds of currents flowed.
What are you working on, now that you’ve conquered America? More poems? Australia?
More poems, yes, hopefully. I’ll settle for that.